Every year, millions of sharks die painfully from the cruel and wasteful shark fin trade. Whether unintentional “bycatch” or captured specifically for their precious fins, these animals have their fins removed and then, dead or dying, are immediately thrown into the water. Shark meat is of low commercial value, so fishermen save freezer space for high-value fish and discard sharks after the animals are "finned".
The market for shark fin soup, a traditional dish in East Asia, is driving the growing practice – an appetite that has contributed to the shocking decline of most major shark species over the past half century.
As the main predators of the ocean, sharks play an essential role in the balance of the marine ecosystem. Their overfishing is causing population crashes, which, along with other top predators, will likely have serious consequences for many other ocean species. The effects of shark overfishing are already visible.
Shark fin soup
Although shark fin has no flavor and very little nutritional value, it provides texture to the soup, not to mention the handsome profits of an industry estimated at $500 million a year. The fins are dried, deboned, boiled and sometimes blanched, then made into a soup by the addition of chicken or fish stock, which gives the flavor. The fins of some species are considered more valuable due to the length and thickness of the "fin needles" they contain.
Mainland China is the world's largest end market for shark fin. Due to its perceived value, serving shark fin soup at private functions is a way to honor one's guests and signal one's wealth and status. The Chinese often express the opinion that no self-respecting host would ever leave shark fin soup off the menu, especially at weddings and other important social functions, for fear of losing face.
The international shark fin trade has generated a very lucrative industry in East Asia, with many shark fin traders having annual sales of millions of dollars. World Customs data shows that more than 100 countries are involved in the shark fin trade, the majority of them being exporters. The main consumer countries in Asia are mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, but large volumes of shark fin are also imported into the United States and the EU, to supply local Chinese communities.
The high commercial value of shark fins has led to gang killings, with one fin trader killing another to warn others of his "patch". In some parts of the world, mafia-like organizations, such as the Chinese triads, completely control the trade.
There have been numerous seizures of illegal shark fins around the world. In some cases, the sharks were caught in areas where shark fishing is prohibited. In other cases, vessels have been apprehended in areas where finning is illegal and found to have only fins or insufficient shark carcasses to account for fin counts. on board – in other words, the sharks had been rammed.
Some countries, like Costa Rica, have strong shark finning regulations, but lack the resources to enforce them. As a result, sharks are often finned in totally protected sea areas where all shark fishing is prohibited. In such cases, the many foreclosures that have taken place are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Learn more about shark finning regulations.
Mercury with your soup?
Lab tests in Hong Kong and Thailand have found mercury levels in shark fins that far exceed recommended safe levels. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause significant damage to the nervous system and fetuses. The increasing consumption of shark fin soup may well cause widespread public health problems resulting from mercury poisoning. Additionally, The Washington Post reported concerns that shark fins were processed in China using industrial chemicals.